John Sexton was born in 1953, and resides in Carmel Valley, California. Respected as a photographer, master printmaker and workshop instructor, he is best known for his luminous, quiet photographs of the natural environment.
His photographs are included in permanent collections, exhibitions, and publications throughout the world. His work has been featured on the CBS “Sunday Morning” show and on the MacNeil Lehrer News Hour. In 1993 his photographs were used in national advertising campaigns by Bank of America and General Motors. Sexton’s photographs have been featured in numerous publications including: Time, Life, American Photo, Backpacker, Photo Techniques, Popular Photography, Zoom, Outdoor Photographer, Outside, and View Camera.
Quiet Light, his award winning first monograph representing fifteen years of work, published in 1990 by Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company, is now in its fourth printing. John’s second book, Listen to the Trees, was published by Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company in 1994. It received the First Place Monograph Award in the 1994 Photography Book of the Year awards, and is in its second printing. His third book entitled Places of Power: The Aesthetics of Technology (2000), explores the aesthetics of humankind’s technology, from ancient Anasazi sites in the Southwestern United States to the Space Shuttle. His fourth book Recollections (2006) presents a 30 year retrospective of his work.
He is Director of the John Sexton Photography Workshops program, and teaches numerous photography workshops each year for other programs in the United States and abroad, emphasizing printing technique and mastery of the Zone System. These other programs include: Anderson Ranch Arts Center, The Ansel Adams Gallery, The Friends of Photography, Maine Photographic Workshops, and The Palm Beach Workshops.
His informed and entertaining lectures for photographic and professional organizations, colleges and universities, discuss the aesthetic and technical aspects of fine black and white photography. He has presented lectures for, among others, Boston University, George Eastman House, The Friends of Photography, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, and the Seattle Art Museum.
Currently a consultant to Eastman Kodak Company and other photographic manufacturers, he worked as both Technical and Photographic Assistant, and then Technical Consultant, to Ansel Adams from 1979 to 1984. He continues to serve as Photographic Special Projects Consultant to The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. From 1985 to 1993 he was a member of the Board of Trustees of The Friends of Photography.
This conversation was first seen in the November 2000 issue of Camera Arts magazine. Find out more about View Camera magazine at www.viewcamera.com.
John Paul Caponigro The essays for your new book Places of Power contextualize the work very well.
John Sexton I was hoping for this when I was initially wrestling with the idea of the project. I think one of my essays in the book actually described this. I was trying to grasp why I was fascinated by making these new photographs, when prior to that almost everything had related to the natural environment
– seemingly with the overriding hope of preservation. In 1987 I stumbled into a power plant, and then 3 years later found myself photographing at Hoover Dam. All of a sudden I understood that the thread of continuity within this body of work had to do with human activity, invention, and creation over a span of nearly one thousand years, and the project included my work on Anasazi ruins. Almost instantaneously I realized what I needed was a subject that was contemporary . That’s when I first got the idea to photograph the Space Shuttle. It took time to figure out how all of these subjects working together. From my earliest days of thinking about it as a project I realized that I wanted somebody to try and explain this process because it is an unusual collection of images. I don’t think there is a single book that contains the same set of subjects. So it was a challenge in that regard. I am pleased with the way all of the essays turned out, and I am very pleased with the way the whole tbook came together.
JPC I can imagine some might say, John Sexton – technology – heresy.
JS The first time I showed any of these photographs was at the last exhibit at the Friends of Photography in Carmel before they moved to San Francisco. The idea was to include photographs from Monterey Peninsula artists, but to show work that was other than that which we might have been known for. I ran into a friend and he said to me, “I saw your prints in the exhibits at the Friends of Photography. When are you going to stop doing the industrial crap? Why don’t you get back to the good stuff – the landscape.” I said, “I still photograph the landscape, but I like this too.” I remember the experience because it was kind of shocking. To me there is a similar beauty in both. I have never liked the term “nature photography.” It has always bothered me. I don’t mind saying I photograph the natural environment which to me includes everything on the planet.
JPC It seems both sensible and timely to expand our understanding of what “environment” means at this time.
It’s also encouraging to hear what you say about having to find your way to the work rather than forced into being. “An artist knows more than he thinks he knows,” is one of my favorite Picasso quotes. The question then becomes how do we find that which we know but don’t think we know. I think if you start with what truly moves you and later find a way to explain the resulting work that that is the best way to go about creating a lively work.
JS When I was first working on these photographs felt I had no idea why I was making them. I felt torn inside, but it was one of the few times where I actually did something that seemed, in retrospect, intelligent because I knew that the answer to why I was making the pictures had to lie within the pictures themselves … and me. The answers lay somewhere between me and my photographs. I realized what I needed to do to figure out the answers was make more pictures. I can’t completely explain it today, but 13 years later I have a lot more answers than I did when I started. The pictures seemed natural to make. I wouldn’t say easy. I prefer natural. Sometimes, in the landscape, you can be photographing for days, exposing film and making photographs, but somehow there just isn’t a sense of harmony in the process. There are other times when you’ve made photographs that you knew you had something when you released the shutter. You could feel it. Those are the negatives that you were most nervous about developing. In these industrial sites it seemed like it was so easy because you had a fairly small box around you compared to the landscape. I just walked that box again and again, over a series of years.
JPC So essentially the answers were contained within the space itself and within doing the work itself.
JS Yes. I also knew when I was done working at the power plants. And I knew when I had finished at Hoover Dam. I know that I am not finished with the Space Shuttle, and I still want to continue exploring those subjects.
JPC Two quotes in the book particularly impressed me both by Walter Cronkite, “The central story of any age is largely that of its technology, according to the history textbooks.” And then later, “Our technological advance has almost always created new, unanticipated problems.” The parallel is clear between us and the Anasazi who at the apex of their culture were forced to migrate because of the pressures they exerted on the environment they lived in. We live in a pressured environment and having no new frontiers we fantasize about finding another one beyond planet Earth. Without being overstated there are clearly ecological echoes resounding within this work. Cronkite mentions Cassandra and I am wondering if indeed this work contains a warning like the one issued by Cassandra.
JS I was very pleased with the way Walter Cronkite’s essay turned out. I approached him after I read the transcript of a speech that he gave to an environmental group a few years ago. He spoke of the importance of technology, but at the same time expressed a concern about the negative technological implications into the future. Up to this point human beings have relied on technology to solve technology’s problems. Now we have some monumental problems on a global scale. I really like the way he tied things together giving technology a historical perspective.
JPC Another mentor, Ansel Adams, is well known for his environmental work and I assume that you have carried along that tradition as well.
JS Well, I have always tried to. Whenever somebody needs a picture for a good cause, I always try to make it available. It’s not a commercial venture to me. That is one of the other things that I wrestled with in these photographs. In one context I don’t think Hoover Dam belongs where it is. I think that the Colorado River should be a free flowing river. But long before I ever came along, not that I could have stopped it the dam was there. What it does is truly astounding, and so is the way it does it. From an engineering perspective it is an amazing accomplishment.
JPC It is both brilliant and horrifying at the same time.
JS Exactly. I hope the photographs express that. I want the photographs to work as strong images in people’s minds. I have never been one to try and sales pitch a picture, to talk about whether it has a certain quality to it or not. Obviously there are words from me that accompany the various sections of the book to try and give the images some sort of context. But, I think there are some pictures within the book that are mysterious. I don’t know that I would say that they are disturbing, but I would hope that they are slightly spooky because that is the way I felt when I was making them.
JPC It’s nice that the message is complex because the situation is complex. It’s too easy to polarize issues and those extreme approaches rarely yield useful or sustainable solutions. I think that just going there and directly observing and bringing back those observations is one of the most powerful ways to move people. It is sometimes best to let people form their own opinions and their own relationships to things. In that way I think the photographer has played and continues to play a key role in environmental issues.
JS It is one of the things that photography probably accomplishes more effectively than any other visual medium – the feeling of being there. One of the things that you can do effectively with photographs is transport the viewer to a place they have never physically been.
JPC As an opening quote to the book you include one of my favorite statements made by Buckminster Fuller, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty, I think only of how to solve the problem. But when I am finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” Though I am not a scientist I find this to be true. Do you have an example of how that principle has operated in your work?
JS What led me to that idea was the concept that we don’t necessarily build utilitarian things to be beautiful, but when we build things that work efficiently they are inherently beautiful. This takes nothing away from a great sculpture. However, to me it is more exciting to walk into a steam turbine room, or to stand underneath the Space Shuttle
to and see a device that was built by people to do a particular job, and discover its innate beauty. I have a photograph of a Space Shuttle main engine that almost looks like it is on a sculpture stand. I swear to God, if you put that rocket engine in an art museum people would “oooh” and “aaah” over it as if it were a piece of great sculpture. Yet the fact is it’s an extremely complicated technological device that generates more power than seven Hoover Dams!
JPC Utility adds another dimension to an object –a beautiful dimension. I think of architecture in this instance.
JS Absolutely. I think architecture and music have got to be among the most abstract media there are.
JPC Yet they’re two of the things that affect us most. One shapes the space we move in, the other shapes the envelope of sound we navigate through. We get instant responses to both. Many are physical responses.
JS How does a person sitting in an office, looking at a little architectural drawing, or at best a little model, visualize the entire process to the experience of standing in the final room. Your father is likely much closer than I ever will be to understanding how someone can put a pencil on a piece of paper, make a mark, and know what that is going to sound like with a 65 piece orchestra. I don’t know how to conceptualize that. It is beyond my capability. I have the utmost awe for someone that can do that.
JPC Perhaps it’s another form of “previsualization”? It is a language that you probably could learn, but it may not be where your passion lies.
JS I think I am too simple minded.
JPC I think you are too other minded. I am not going to enter a darkroom and accuse you of being simple minded.
JS That is something I can grasp anyway. And maybe one of the reasons is the final product of photography, its success or failure, is not put off so far into the future.
JPC Rob Pike’s (a computer scientist who developed one of the first systems that used windows to allow multiple applications to share a display) introduction also highlights the sense of how form follows function beautifully, “Some elements of aesthetics are innate, a consequence of design.” This may be akin to “Truth is beauty. Beauty is truth.” This of course brings us to the nature of the medium. And, individuals bring their unique aesthetic to both a process and a subject matter. The collision of the three is particularly fascinating to me. It may be photography’s ultimate mystery. I am wondering what kind of meeting point you’ve found over the years between the three?
JS You ask the toughest questions. Why don’t you just ask about shutter speeds, f/stops and easy things like that?
JPCThey’ve already been asked and answered. Often we do a technical sidebar at the end of each conversation. This information is at the back of your book, isn’t it?
JS Yes it is, and I occasionally take some heat over including that information in my books. But so many people come up to me or they drop a note and ask those questions. I really enjoy that because it means they have looked at the pictures and have tried to figure out how I made them. If the photographic information helps them, I am pleased. If they simply aren’t interested in the technical information, it can easily be avoided.
JPC That’s great. You’ll eliminate having to answer the same questions endlessly.
JS Right. I did a workshop shortly after Quiet Light came out. As I was doing a demo and somebody asked, “How did you do this?” And I said, “I think I used a #11 filter. I really don’t remember.” Bob said, “It was a #58 filter.” After the first couple of times this happened I would just ask Bob for the answer, “Bob, how did I do that?” Bob had memorized the entire book, which concerns me because I think he should have better things to do in his life. It was very flattering on one hand, and it was slightly distressing on the other. He needed to be focusing his attention on his own work.
JPC I think you are pointing out that that is exactly what we are not talking about when we talk about communion with a subject through a medium.
JS Right. Now, I think I drifted off because you asked me a good question that I was having trouble answering. Do you remember what the question was?
JPC The first part was drawing out the idea that beauty is innate to a working design.
JS I really believe that is true. I think that we don’t often – look at the natural environment as a functioning system. There are very few things in the natural environment that are not beautiful. There are things that we might not be able to comprehend, or that may not agree with our tastes. For instance, some people have difficulty with the desert. They find it too void of life. But to me it’s aesthetics boiled down to raw nudity
JPC I couldn’t agree more.
The second part was about finding a meeting point between a subject, a medium, and a personal vision. Did you find that as a result of approaching a new subject matter your technique had to shift a little?
JS Absolutely. When I first photographed the Space Shuttle I didn’t anticipate anything that would be technically different from the power plants or Hoover Dam. I had the process of photographing under extremely high contrast situations pretty well under control. I wanted these subjects to look sensuous. I wanted them to have a tactile quality. I wanted to recreate a sense of reality. Why? Because I could technically do it? No. Rather, I wanted to try to put the viewer into these places – places that most never get to experience firsthand. Then again, I had seen pictures of the Space Shuttle at night on the launch pad and it appeared gleaming white. Well, when I finally met a Space Shuttle I found out that
they an orbiter shows the wear and tear of millions of miles of travel. The orbiter is actually matte white, not gleaming. Really, it’s pretty gray. When I made a photograph that was accurate to the subject it looked miserable. In some of the prints I have to do a lot of darkroom work to get the Shuttle looking white, because that is the way I think it should look, and it is the way other people think it should look. They are used to seeing it on television with bright xenon lights on the shuttle in front of a dark background.
JPC You brought to bear what you felt and knew beforehand to what you were seeing at the moment. So they refer to the icon as well as the reality.
JS Exactly. I had to change the way I printed these negatives. I had to alter the way I processed the film, not because I wanted to change, but because the photographs demanded it.
JPC Did you see accompanying shifts in your vision as it were?
JS In a way it was almost disturbing. Although I have tried to include a number of different vantage points, there is a lot of symmetry in the design of these objects. When I am working in the natural environment I don’t tend to regularly put elements in the center. However, since the Space Shuttle is a symmetrical object, I ended up making a lot of photographs, without ever consciously thinking about it, that were much more symmetrically organized than I might have if I were working in the landscape. At a certain point I could see the recurring symmetry in my contact sheets and prints. I then said to myself, “Hey, watch it. Make sure you are not just making those because they become comfortable.” I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just doing it because it was the easy way to see it. I try and shift my vision frequently.
JPC I always look to proportion. Every artist has an indelible sense of proportion. You can see it in Strands’ photographs particularly. Looking at that these there are similar proportions to those found in images of trees that also have the Sexton signature.
JS These are not things that you do consciously. You can see them in retrospect. I don’t like to go out with preconceived ideas. I want to go out and find something that is so exciting that I can’t keep from making the photograph.
JPC Photography is a way to explore.
JS Exactly. And sometimes our explorations are successful, and other times they are not. For me, one of the most exciting things about photography is when you come back from a trip and you have a couple of negatives that just felt right when you were making them. Those are the ones you are nervous about, and want to see first. I have a great fear of the day when I come back from a photography trip and I am not nervous about the results. That tells me that there isn’t much of me on that film. I think I want to be nervous. I want the anticipation of one or two of those pieces of film that is just burning a hole inside of you until it gets processed. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have, in the recent past, great disappointments. Those are not fun days. But there is a much worse day, and that is the day when you simply don’t care.
JPC Six cups of cappuccino is no substitute for that nervous feeling, is it?
JS That’s right. Photography can become a hardware oriented process for many. One of the most challenging things about teaching is trying to find a way to throw the switch on the inside so that others can experience creative excitement too. I remember watching Ansel come out of the darkroom in 1982 saying, “I finally got a print of this negative I made in 1932.” That was the most valuable lesson I ever learned from him.
JPC That’s wonderful.
JS We walk a fine line. It’s a fine line between style and redundancy. It is easy to revisit your past successes, if you have had success. I am flattered if somebody can recognize one of my pictures without having seen the signature on the mat. That means that there is something that came through. It is intangible. I recall seeing photographs by Sebastio Selgado in Time magazine shortly after the Gulf War. These were photographs of fighting fires in Kuwait. I wasn’t reading it, I was just looking. I said, “Oh, my God, Selgado. This is the way he would photograph it.” Naturally when I got to the front article it said photographs by Sebastio Salgado.
JPC You saw the real signature.
JS So that must mean that they had a context and relationship with his other images. So there is a unique style. Something of him comes through. Then, at a certain point one could say that style turns into repetition, redundancy. So it is a pretty narrow road to walk. I think the best way to walk is to keep exploring and doing what feels right. With the power plants, I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. It was a very exciting time in my photography because I didn’t know why I was making the pictures. It was scary, but it was also easy.
JPC That’s invigorating, isn’t it?
JS It is. It was very stimulating, and it is hard to manufacture. I can’t just wake up tomorrow and say I am going to recreate that feeling today. I was out there reaching further than I had aesthetically, in a direction I was unfamiliar with. And I had a whole new set of technical challenges that made me reach and stumble and fall and pick myself up and say, “That didn’t work, what do I do now?” When you trip and stumble it is embarrassing, but you dust yourself off and you look around and say, “Okay, that didn’t work. What do I do next?” That is when you are growing.
I have met very few people that are superb at what they do that don’t have an underlying sense of humor.
JPC It is a necessary survival skill.
JS How else can you deal with things? I find people without a sense of humor most distressing. I like photographers, and I have a lot of photographer friends. But the ones that I can’t spend a lot of time with are the ones who take themselves too seriously. They seem to think that every time they release the shutter they are changing the course of human history. It’s not likely. But it is exciting to know that we all work in a medium that has changed the way we look at history, and the way we experience day to day life. We work in a medium that has a power not because of the cameras and lenses, film and papers, even computers, but because human beings are using those materials. That is the power of the medium. There have been some amazing things done up to this point. I can’t help but think that there will be amazing new things in the future.
JPC Without a doubt. Most people don’t realize how large or far reaching the field of photography is. You and I tend to deal with the fine art, but let’s also consider social documentary, and photography’s scientific applications (in medicine and astronomy for instance) as well. There has never been a visual medium that has done more to change the way we look at the world and what we know about it and ourselves
JS Absolutely. It is hard for a child to be born today and not experience photography within the first few hours or more likely the first few minutes of life. The birth doesn’t happen until it is photographed. You can’t have a war without photographs these days. It seems nothing can happen without photographs. The person or the event doesn’t exist unless there are pictures to prove it. That is, I think, exciting. I really have enjoyed our discussion because it is first of all thought provoking and it brings back memories of the talk I saw that you gave in ‘97, which I really enjoyed. I can still see some of the images that were on the screen. Consider the difference in your approach, the digital, as opposed to my approach, the analog. In fact we are both doing the same thing. We are considering things, often within a historical perspective. Just in the last few moments you have imparted your recollections of many jewels of thought from people of importance in the medium of photography, history, and general life that you bring to a computer. It’s not just the idea of using Photoshop because it is Photoshop and it is cool to do. It is a tool to achieve a goal. There’s probably a lot of internal turning and head scratching that goes onto a times to figure out that goal. It is the journey and the reaching that makes it all worth it.